Wellesley’s own Sylvia Plath has come out with a never-before-seen short story, 55 years after the Pulitzer prize-winning poet died by suicide in her London home. Call it a resurrection of sorts. Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom is a mythic tale of of a smart, rules-following young woman traveling by luxury train to an end-of-the-line frozen hell, just like Dante’s 9th circle. Mary ventured off not knowing her destination, and comes to realize that if she doesn’t take action she may end up paying for her own betrayal by her parents.
With the HarperCollins publication of Mary Ventura, written when she was a student at Smith College, Plath has seemingly risen from the dead. It’s not the first time. That was in 1953 when, home on break from Smith, she was reported missing, giving Wellesley a tremendous scare. Search parties scoured the town looking for the twenty-year-old, who was found two days later in a crawl space under her family’s 26 Elmwood Road home. She had taken 40 sleeping pills, some said because she was distraught over not getting into a summer writing program at Harvard. She survived and was hospitalized.
The next time Plath came back to life was in 1982 when she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her The Collected Poems. She was the first person to win the prestigious prize posthumously.
The publication of Mary Ventura marks the third ascension, and we are reminded of the power of The Bell Jar author’s literary gifts. The story was found by archivist Judith Glazer-Raymo, who specializes in Sylvia Plath material and recognized Mary Ventura as signature Plath. From there, the story made its way to London-based Faber & Faber, the agent for Plath’s estate.
In the story, Mary’s preoccupied and distant parents are sending her off at a gleaming train station. Her mother hustles her along and tells the reluctant Mary, “Everyone has to leave home sometime.” Her father calls her travel jitters, “Nonsense,” and off Mary goes. The train is luxurious, but an older woman who serves as a mentor figure reminds her “yes my dear, but remember you pay for it.” The price, apparently, is a final destination to the north country. How final the reader is not told. In an epiphany scene Mary knows that can’t let herself be forced to disembark at the end of the line.
After epiphany there’s peril, followed by birth-canal imagery in which Mary pushes herself into the light. What the now-empowered Mary finds there, you’ll have to read for yourself. The publishing house says that after this story was rejected by Mademoiselle magazine, Plath tweaked it, making it less sinister. It seems she also made it less satisfying to herself and apparently stuck it in a folder or a box, and that was that. Until now.
HarperCollins has published her original version. Reading it you may hear undertones of Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery. Published in 1948, that tale of the prize you seriously don’t want to win became an instant high-school English class must. Wellesley kids today read it. It’s quite possible that Plath’s much-loved and legendary WHS English teacher Mr. Crockett, namesake of the school’s library, introduced Jackson’s work to her and a stylistic impression was made.
Many in Wellesley remember Plath fondly as a home-town girl who was going places. In her high school yearbook picture, Plath’s smile is bright, her white eyelet-trimmed blouse perfectly pressed, her blonde hair shiny and swept back with bobby pins. This isn’t the world-famous Sylvia Plath, the one who would later dye her hair dark brown so as to appear more intellectual. The one who would marry English poet Ted Hughes and have two children with him before he had an affair and left the family. The Wellesleyan yearbook Sylvia Plath is just another 1950 WHS senior on a yearbook page grid, looking ahead to the future.
The entry next to the small black and white picture is ordinary enough. Back then, the entries were written partly by a student’s peers and partly by the student. Sylvia Plath’s teen-age friends noted her “warm smile” and that she was an “energetic worker” and “clever with chalk and paints.” Plath called herself a “future writer” even though she had regularly published in the school newspaper The Bradford and her work had appeared in national magazines. Her creativity had also won her several literary prizes, including scholarship money that would help educate her at Smith. But in the Wellesleyan, which the yearbook is still called today, Plath moaned over “Those rejection slips from Seventeen.”
Also she so, so wished she had her driver’s license.